“There’s a group out there, they’re real competition, and they’re growing. I don’t like it.”
“I know a guy. He’s good, he’s proven, and when he takes on a competitor, he takes them down.” “Great. Bring him in. I don’t care what he costs”, said the CEO, “because we need him to knock these new guys out.” So, his VP’s went to the consultant who refused at first, but finally, agreed to take the business. He came to the CEO and warned, “You’ll have to accept what I say. I call ‘em as I see ‘em, so no promises on what my assessment will be of the situation. For all you know, I may end up telling you to merge with these new guys. Either way, I say what I see. Deal?” The CEO agreed. And as it turned out, the consultant told him exactly what he didn’t want to hear. Instead of accepting the consultant’s advice, the CEO dismissed him, and they each went on their way.
Meet King Balak and the Prophet Balaam, in this week’s Torah portion, Balak.
What happens when you get different results from what you expect from an advisor, and you don’t like it at all? What happens when someone tries to speak real truth to real power? In this story, King Balak was alarmed at what seemed like an invasion from the Israelites. They were huge, they “[hid] the earth from view” (Num 22:5) So he brought in the well-known non-Israelite prophet Balaam to curse them, because when Balaam cursed a group, they stayed cursed. Balaam told the King that he was bound to say whatever words Gods put in his mouth, and sure enough, the only thing Balaam could do to the Israelites was bless them. Four times. This, of course, made the King furious. Balak told the prophet to stop blessing or cursing, called the whole thing off, and dismissed the prophet Balaam.
As a nation, we give lip service to supporting those who speak truth to power, but in reality, when it happens, we are not supportive at all. It took major legislation to protect people who speak out about corrupt corporate activities. Movies get made about the precious few who succeed. Politicians who question what the government is doing get their patriotism questioned in return. When it comes to Israel and the American Jewish community in particular, it’s even worse. Without saying whether or not “truth” is being spoken, one need only look at the blogosphere and column activity lately in reaction to President Obama’s speech and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to know it’s true.
In fact, I do think truth is being spoken. And in my opinion much of the Jewish community is acting like King Balak, dismissing the messenger when it doesn’t like the message. I’m not elevating the President to a Prophet, but he is not the only one who has been saying that new approaches to the “matzav” (situation) need to be found to what clearly hasn’t been working for decades and decades now. But new approaches require new sight.
The Balak text is full of “sight” language. There is a quirky episode between Balaam and his donkey, on his way to Balak. Balaam’s donkey refuses to move forward, because only it can see the angel of God standing in its path. Balaam beats the donkey until it finally speaks to him, reproaching him for the beating, and finally Balaam sees the angel in his path. The angel tells him to speak truth, to speak what he truly sees.
How many beaten donkeys will it take before we finally see what is in our paths? How many truth-tellers will we dismiss, even if all they’re doing is speaking the truth of needing different perspective? How many times will we keep circling and circling, like Balak, and not ever accept seeing something we don’t want to see? It took a well-respected, non-Israelite who nevertheless believed in God and Israel, to tell Balak what he didn’t want to hear. We have many believers in God and Israel speaking out, too. It’s time to listen.